Can American democracy survive the predations of today's GOP? This week's revelations about President Trump trying to force Ukraine to turn over dirt on Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden are just the latest in a seemingly endless series of affronts to the values of representative democracy perpetrated by the Republican Party and its allies. Indeed, how to change the GOP or contain its gathering menace to the U.S. political order might be the most important challenge of this generation.
But those hoping a Republican shellacking next year will force a democracy-saving reckoning from inside the party are wrong. Only Democrats can save American democracy.
In a Friday New York Times op-ed, prominent political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daneill Ziblatt (authors of the influential How Democracies Die) recite the GOP's litany of legal but hardball abuses stretching back a decade, from the theft of Merrick Garland's Supreme Court seat in 2016 to North Carolina Republicans faking out their Democratic colleagues to pass a budget on 9/11. Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude that the GOP is the "greatest threat to our democracy today." And they believe that a comprehensive rejection by voters in 2020 is the only way to meet that threat, since "parties only change when their strategies bring costly defeat." Facing demographic apocalypse, Republicans might finally be forced to appeal to a more diverse group of voters, and in so doing moderate both their policy and procedural extremism.
This is tempting to believe. Since the turn of this century, Democrats haven't just been fighting on policy grounds. They've also been waging a rearguard battle for the very integrity of democracy itself, constantly on the defensive as Republicans bend rules, suppress votes, and flout once-consensus understandings of norms and informal processes. It has been exhausting and dispiriting, particularly since elected Democrats have seemed either not up to the task of fighting back or frankly delusional about what their counterparts are up to. Nothing would be more comforting than a return to normalcy. But unfortunately, hoping that one defeat, no matter how broad, will change the Republican Party is a fantasy.
The most problematic assumption in this scenario is that the leaders of the post-Trump Republican Party will correctly assess the causes of the party's defeat, conclude that norm-violation and procedural escalation soured the public on GOP rule, and make the appropriate behavioral changes at the state and national level to win back the voters they lost.
This seems, to be charitable, deeply unlikely. For starters, it is not always clear what caused a political defeat, especially before the dust has cleared. Results and exit polls can only tell decision-makers so much about why voters made their choices. What, for example, caused the Democratic defeat in 2016? Was it eroding margins with certain kinds of white voters? Was it former FBI Director James Comey's unprecedented intervention the week before the election? Was it fatigue with eight years of a Democratic presidency? Was it Hillary Clinton's campaign strategy? Or was it maybe all of these things?
The same issue of messy multicausality will plague anyone trying to decipher the causes of a Republican defeat in 2020. It will be easy to blame President Trump himself, a man so totally lacking in self-control and basic decency that he has been unable to convince even half the public to express favorable views of his administration despite low unemployment, consistent job growth, and a bullish stock market. If an economic downturn arrives next year, as some economists expect, the morticians may simply blame bad luck and move on.
Worse, the most extreme partisans in the GOP's ranks might argue that Trump lost because he wasn't far enough to the right – had he only built the wall and closed the border and bombed Iran and thrown Hillary Clinton in jail, Republicans would have shown up in greater numbers to save him. In any case, since voters mostly don't care about procedural hardball like eliminating the "blue-slip" rule that once gave senators the right to veto federal judicial nominees from their home states, it strains credibility to imagine Republican strategists thinking that playing nicer will get them back into power.
Second, even when party elites do come to accurate conclusions about the causes of defeat, they may be unable to change direction. In the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election, the Republican National Committee sponsored a now-infamous "autopsy," which concluded that the party needed to make inroads with voters of color or face extinction. Not only did leading Republicans not even try to do that, shortly thereafter they hitched their fortunes to an openly racist reality TV star and remade themselves in his grisly image. Indeed, the party is trapped in an unbreakable cycle of escalating extremism, driven by its own primary voters and by the rage-industrial complex of the conservative media.
And that is the biggest problem with assuming that a massive 2020 loss will "break the fever" or alter Republican behavior in any way. In their op-ed, Levitsky and Ziblatt claim that "Republican leaders are not driven by an intrinsic or ideological contempt for democracy." But how else could you describe the behavior of Republican elites this century? If your fear of losing an election to your opponent overwhelms your commitment to fair play and the peaceful alternation of power, it means you don't really believe in democracy at all. Bush v. Gore, strict ID laws, voter-roll purges, and the Merrick Garland stunt are all part of what is at this point a longstanding and open contempt for democracy. A single election defeat won't change that.
Let's say that Republicans get their overwhelming repudiation next year. President Trump is defeated by 8 percentage points, Democrats expand their House majority, and Republicans lose Senate races in Colorado, Maine, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Texas and North Carolina to give Democrats a 54-46 edge in the chamber. Even if a recession hits with the most exquisite political timing in history for Democrats, this seems like the outer limits of the kind of defeat that could be inflicted on Republicans next year.
Would it be enough to convince the party to change course? The loss of moderates like Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) would shift the ideological center of gravity in the Senate even further to the right. And Republicans might be facing an aggressive policy onslaught from a committed progressive president like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. It is absurd to think this Republican Party would lose all three branches of government and, threatened with a nationalization of the health-care industry, a massive increase in taxes on the wealthy, and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, conclude that they need to move to the center and be more cooperative.
Remember also that ex-President Trump will be out there on Fox News (or his own network) every night yelling incoherently about socialism and Mexicans and kneeling NFL players, flinging venom at every Democrat in sight. What little restraint the office exerts on him today will be gone. The right-wing media machine will see stopping Medicare-for-all and immigration reform as an existential crisis, and do everything in its power to whip viewers and readers — and primary voters — into a frothing mosh pit of crazed anger and fear. Republicans in Congress will face the same perverse incentives, both to undermine and obstruct the new Democratic administration so they can take power back in 2022 and to cater to their base of elderly, white fanatics who will decide the fate of individual members of Congress in the next round of primaries.
Younger and more competent but no less extreme people like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) are much more likely to gamble on combining Trump's ideology with a more palatable public persona and a less chaotic management style than they are to wake up one day and decide they need to appeal to women, minorities, and young people after all.
If Democrats win next year, they have to understand the Republican Party will be unchanged. Because of the insane frequency of American elections, they will have just months to take the measures needed to ensure that Republicans don't stage another takeover of the U.S. government beginning in 2022. And they'll need to be able to simultaneously pass progressive policies and roll out an aggressive package of reforms to save democracy. None of this will involve a post-come-to-Jesus-moment Republican Party. It will all have to be done over the sound of Tucker Carlson screaming.
That's because GOP behavior is not just driven, as Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, by fear of demographic eclipse and the loss of power, but also by their confidence that Republicans can use America's archaic, counter-majoritarian political institutions to hold onto enough power long enough to stop Democrats from governing. It's why last year I argued that the most important task of the next unified Democratic government isn't policy but rather using perfectly constitutional maneuvers to level the electoral playing field which has so often this century resulted in Republicans gaining power despite winning fewer votes.
Statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico to rectify their structural deficit in the Senate. Ranked Choice Voting in an expanded House to eliminate the threat of gerrymandering. A massive new voting rights act to crush voter suppression in federal elections and ensure that every American who wants to cast a ballot can do so. Expanding the Supreme Court to restore the balance of power that was altered by the Garland heist. Other thinkers have floated a number of other important reform ideas for Democrats to consider.
Democrats must have a proactive plan to save democracy, one that doesn't depend on restoring dead norms and doesn't assume that electoral defeat will change the ingrained and longstanding political calculus that led the Republican Party to its authoritarian turn. The Republican Party must come to believe not just that a majority opposes them but that the majority will rule. Not in 20 years. Next year.
The future of American democracy, and indeed of the planet, depends on it.
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